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Sulu battleground revisited

Publication Date : 10-02-2014


On Wednesday, a small army escorted the media, who were in three pick-up trucks, to Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu, Sabah, where Sulu gunmen landed by boat on February 12 last year.

For security reasons, I can’t reveal how many soldiers guarded us to the scene where Malaysian security forces were engaged in gunbattles with the armed intruders.

If I did, they would have to kill me.

“Tanduo is safe. But we have organised a military escort just in case,” an officer told us at an Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) base about 17km from Kampung Tanduo.

The journey to Tanduo passed through thousands of oil palm trees in Felda Sahabat, an oil palm plantation the size of Singapore.

The bullet-riddled wooden houses in Kampung Tanduo have been abandoned, as villagers were not allowed to return to their homes. Some of the houses have been destroyed.

Esscom has set up base in the seaside village. The commanding officer in the security zone, spanning about 60km of coastline, is Lieutenant Colonel Mat Noh Ngadiman, a seasoned soldier who was in duty in war zones such as Lebanon and Nepal.

“This is a highly secured place,” said the commanding officer.

“So this is the last place the Sulu gunmen would go if they wanted to invade Sabah again?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Scratch Tanduo, I told myself, from my list of possible repeat Sulu gunmen intrusion targets.

Sabah’s coastline close to the Philippines is long; there are other potential targets such as Kudat, Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Kunak, Semporna and Tawau (which are under Esscom).

We were brought to a makeshift information centre that displayed 3D maps of the area, photographs of the gun battles and paraphernalia found on the dead gunmen.

Two things interested me.

One was a photograph of a rather hot female Sulu sniper.

If “Tanduo, the Invasion” was a movie, the sniper’s role would have been played by tough chick Michelle Rodriguez.

The Sulu army, I was told, preferred female snipers.

“Women have sharper eyesight than men,” an officer told me.

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“She was captured. But she died in captivity after she refused to eat for five days,” he said.

The other thing that interested me was a Sulu gunman “feng shui” calendar on when was the best time to go for a kill or die in battle.

Probably there was some accuracy to the killing timetable.

There was a symbol of a “mayat” (corpse) from 8am to 11am on Friday. If I deciphered the calendar correctly, it meant that there would be death before Friday’s noon prayers.

On Friday morning on March 1 last year, two Malaysian police officers and 12 Sulu gunmen were killed in a gun battle in Tanduo, triggering the military offensive against the invaders.

Esscom also brought us to visit the shallow river mouth where the armed intruders had entered, the surau (facing the Celebes sea where Tawi Tawi in the Philippines is about 65km away) where they were first spotted and to the abandoned house of the late Ahmad Bom, whose son was among the 30 people charged for various security offences in connection with the Sulu gunmen intrusion.

It was an insightful visit as when I covered the Lahad Datu attack last year, the war zone was off limits to civilians. I got an understanding of the terrain our security forces had to contend with.

“What’s that blue flag doing there?” I asked an officer, pointing to two oil palm trees in a field where the trees have been felled.

“That is where the two police officers were shot,” he said, referring to the March 1 incident involving Sulu gunmen carrying a white flag.

“They were killed by snipers,” I said, thinking of the female sniper who looked like Rodriguez.

“Yes,” he said.

During my Lahad Datu visit, my colleagues, Muguntan Vanar and Dina Murad, and I met with several contacts familiar with the security situation in Sabah.

Some told us that the shooting spree where six men used air guns and had targeted 46 establishments in Kota Kinabalu was a warning.

“They wanted to tell us that they could have used real bullets. And that we should not hang the 30 people on trial,” he said.

They also told us that there were several armed attempts (including kidnapping on Mabul island) to enter Sabah.

The next day, in a trip to Pulau Adal that lies on the smuggling route from southern Philippines to Sabah, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar confirmed that Malaysian security forces thwarted a second attempt in two months by armed groups to enter Sabah.

A respected 60-something Sabahan of Tausug origin, who is in touch with militants in southern Philippines, related: “A Tausug woman, whose husband was killed in the Philippines 10 years ago, told her 15-year-old son, ‘That is the man who killed your father’ when she saw him in the Lahad Datu market.”

“The son went home, took a knife and stabbed the man to death,” he said.

“The Tausugs (who led the Tanduo invasion) will never forget. They will avenge the death of those who were killed in Tanduo.”


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